‘Columbus’ star Cho said returning to town ‘felt like a homecoming’

Technically, actor John Cho relaxed on a settee at the Inn at Irwin Gardens on Fifth Street. But in modern terms, the two-person furniture piece would be a love seat.

Nothing could have been more fitting and symbolic Saturday morning as the Korean-born actor poured forth his love for all things Columbus — the city, and its people. Oh, and his love for “Columbus,” the movie that enjoyed a nearly day-long sellout at its local premiere Friday at YES Cinema downtown, was also mentioned.

“It felt like a homecoming as we were going down I-65,” Cho said of his return to the community a year after he and a crew of about 40 people finished shooting the independent film that highlights local Modernist architecture amid a story of two characters struggling with dreams, loss and hope.

“A crew member asked me if I ever have had this kind of relationship with a place I have shot in. And the answer is no. And partially, it’s due to qualities of the town itself.

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“And the other part is that you rarely shoot in a place that stands in for itself. You shoot in Vancouver, for instance, but it’s really supposed to be Seattle. You shoot in Shreveport, but it’s supposed to be Massachusetts.”

He embraced his three weeks in Columbus so much that he began popping up on residents’ Facebook and Twitter feeds soon after he arrived — right when his then-latest flick of “Star Trek Beyond” (where he portrayed Sulu) was No. 1 at the box office. He shopped at the downtown Columbus Farmers Market and tweeted about it. He posed for pictures with residents at a variety of restaurants.

“I didn’t know any other way to have a relationship with this town other than to meet it with arms wide open,” said the Los Angeles resident. “I felt like the city here wanted to give me a hug. And I wanted to give it right back.”

He felt the same way Friday, hustling into town on a delayed flight from Vancouver, Canada, in jeans and windbreaker less than an hour before a red-carpet celebration at YES. He quickly changed into a stylish black suit, and felt so at home that, while chatting with Indianapolis journalists, he quoted former Cummins Engine Co. leader, philanthropist and architectural inspiration J. Irwin Miller.

“I wanted to dress like him (at the premiere),” he said. “I actually looked up pictures of him.”

He also recently posted on Instagram a Miller quote about diversity and fighting prejudice, a topic he has addressed frequently on Twitter.

Like Miller, the 45-year-old Cho has learned to appreciate fine architecture wherever he finds it. Also, like Miller, he sees that beautiful design has changed him in some way.

“I feel like that architecture is no longer a school subject, and I now have a real relationship with it,” he said. “Now, I feel like my sensors are on. And I’m awake to it.

“It’s a habit now that I can walk into a space, and feel like I know what it’s doing, to some extent.”

One quick example: When he first walks into the room at The Inn at Irwin Gardens, he spots an artfully decorated, old-fashioned fireplace screen, and seems fascinated while offering a quick tutorial on its birth and use. Soon enough, though, he switches the subject to another kind of warmth.

“There’s a sense here that everyone feels like they’re representing this town, maybe because almost everyone knows one another,” he said. “I think people here behave very cordially and warmly partially because they know they’re reflecting others.

“And people here have said, ‘Thanks for being here. Thanks for shooting here.’ That’s not exactly something a New Yorker would say, or an Angeleno would say.

“But I guess they say it here because they’re proud of the town — and they’re thinking about the collective group.”

He has told others of the city, certainly, including his much-publicized interview in January with The Hollywood Reporter while promoting “Columbus” at the Sundance Film Festival. He referred to the town as an “emerald city” — and he still seems fascinated.

“What’s not really in the film is just how contained all the (celebrated) architecture is,” Cho said. “And the fact that you can walk, for the most part, from place to place, is extraordinary. That’s hard to know from the film — that the town is so architecture-dense.”

He already mentioned last year that he fell in love with Finnish designer Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church for its seating-in-the-round layout so that fellow believers face one another.

Just before he rose to leave for question-and-answer film sessions in Indianapolis and then to Vancouver and the set of Fox’s “The Exorcist,” he reminded a couple listeners that this visit need not be his last. The town and the movie has built a desire within him to share its treasures even more.

“I was just thinking last night that I would love for my kids (ages 4 and 9) to see it sometime,” he said of the community. “It would be fun to watch the movie, and then walk to all the places. That would be a fun vacation.”

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Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.